Florida Keys an adventure in paradise

Tony Carter is guest columnist.

The church van came to a grinding stop in the gravel parking lot, flinging stones like bullets ricocheting off the parked cars. As the dust settled on the van, the boys tumbled out, still car sick from Pete’s erratic driving.

It wasn’t easy to find Poncho’s Fuel Dock. So as the boys squinted with the bright light of the setting sun in their eyes, they saw the Calypso Poet, a three-masted schooner which would soon be their home for a week.

Poncho’s sits as a floating dock on the waters of Boat Key Harbor in Marathon, Fla. It’s a place where the locals buy fuel and bait while trading fishing stories. Betty Ann is the manager at Poncho’s. She met us at the door with a welcoming, “Hey ya’ll, come on in. Captain Ron is in the back. I’ll tell him you’re here.”

Captain Ron was the owner of the Calypso Poet, a 50-year-old wooden schooner that cruises the Florida Keys, showing paying guests what it means to be a real sailor and fisherman, if only for a week.

What convinced me was that he specialized in trips for Boy Scouts. That’s what we were, 12 boys and two adults from Troop 10, Cleveland, Tenn., and we were bound for high adventure. And these boys from the hills of East Tennessee were ready for an adventure.

From a back room, out strolled Captain Ron, a cheery sun-baked man with long, shoulder-length white hair and a gold earring. His booming voice welcomed us all to Poncho’s and commanded, “Grab your gear, boys, and let’s get aboard. You must be the scoutmaster,” he said as he grabbed my hand in a strong handshake.

“Yes, and this is Pete, my assistant scoutmaster,” I replied as he escorted us out to the Poet. “Great to meet you, but we’re burning daylight,” Captain Ron said. “Let’s get on board and underway, so we can get out in the bay before dark. Let’s move it boys!”

With that command, the scouts scampered up the gangway and piled their gear on the deck. Captain Ron fired up the engines and took the wheel in his hands and off we went to find our home for the night in the center of the bay. Tomorrow, the adventure would begin.

The sun rose early in the eastern sky and we were up early as well. The boys, Pete and I had slept out on the deck to watch the shooting stars.

By 9 a.m., we had raised the anchor, the sails had caught the wind and we were racing for adventure.

Our first stop was Alligator Reef, marked by a 13-story lighthouse. This is where we would spend the day snorkeling. The coral and sea life are in 25 feet of sparkling water. It was a glorious place.

“Out here,” Captain Ron said, “you can see water in five different shades of blue.”

There was plenty of shallow, calm water to swim in, so the boys could explore the coral while chasing the tropical fish that shimmered in rainbow hues. Soon, Captain Ron and the Scouts were in the water.

“Now I’ll teach these boys how to find lobster for their supper,” yelled the captain.

In a few minutes, they had taken a score of lobsters from their hiding places and tossed them on board the Poet.

Pete and I had the job of running down the newly arrived lobsters and placing them in a tub to await their fate.

As we approached the dinner hour, Pete and I waved in our reluctant Scouts, leaving the reef to its colors, coral and schools of relieved fish.

Pete and I, along with Dotty, who is Captain Ron’s wife and first mate, had prepared the lobsters by placing them in several pots to boil in a concoction of spices, coconut milk and water.

That night we sat around on the deck, enjoying a light summer breeze and a feast of lobster while in the distance the sun was tucked away for the night. We wondered what adventures tomorrow would bring and what kind of show the stars would give us that night.

Tony Carter of Mount Pleasant is a history and special education teacher for the Charleston County School District. He has more than 30 years of experience as a Boy Scout leader. He and his wife, Mary, have two grown sons.